My grandfather, Ben, made me a doll’s house when I was small. It was rough. It was perfect. His work-shed at his house in Richmond had aeroplanes flying over it, low enough to warm your hair and fill your ears with engine and wind.
The shed was dark and warm. The carpet made of wood shavings. Small windows. He made me a merry-go-round with horses made steady with a pearl of glue under each tiny hoof, polishing the circles of wood first with sandpaper and finally with felt made fragrant with talk powder.
He was an alcoholic, miserable in the city after a life in the bush. Then the war. There was nobody to ask if men were ok. There was only the bottle.
He always bought me liquorice.
He polished small disks of wood for me. He made them into mirrors. I tided the shed. I shuffled the tools and the wood about, and he looked on uneasily, thanking me, nodding and nodding, needing eucalypts and space and heat and getting only Adelaide.
He nodded and began the doll’s house. I’d always wanted one. He made it properly, with an attic. He must have heard me say it, ‘an attic’, and he made one, a proper one. I would see him sanding and cutting, his shoulders still wearing the war and heavy with poverty and city.
Now he’s gone.
I set it out for my grandsons, and they filled its rooms with new knowledge. They piled all the tiny plates and cups into a front end loader. They set up the kitchen with cupboards and beds. They put a tractor in the garage. They put the bath outside. They put the baby’s cot in the tractor. They continued my grandfather, and may they never know war.
Last night there was a slice of light balanced on the horizon just before the sun set. Max said, ‘Is that the morning?’
It is good to know things.
A little girl in the shop, who darts into the shop after school and stands silently staring at the Diary of a Wimpy Kid books, leaves without saying anything. I don’t know anything about her except that she reads. This, by default, makes her enormous. Which books, and why? She looks at art books, kneels next to, handles, frowns at those glossy slabs; the pages of the art books. She sits on her knees, a book laid flat on the carpet, bends over it, hands on the floor, looking and looking. Seeing…what?
It’s not just the page we see.
Artwork by Natacha Einat
When the cousins talk about Finn, they always say he is too something. The cousins are three, Finn is one. He doesn’t have much authority yet.
‘He’s too small.’
‘He can’t talk.’
‘Finn can’t come because he’s at home in she’s cot because he’s not big.’
‘He’s not strong.’
‘Finn’s lost him’s shoes.’
‘Do him want to come with us?’
‘He’s too loud.’
‘He’s in she’s highchair.’
At the table, Finn eats steadily, bangs a spoon and watches the roof. Noah and Max look on, thinking about it.
They ask me, ‘Is that bread dead?’ Do dogs eat water? Where’s Pa?’
They eat broadly, expansively, and watch each other swallow. They have not finished but they are finished.
‘Can we play trucks now? Not Finn.’ Finn, hearing his name, makes eye contact, unhurried and joyful enough to make them pause.
And say, ‘Look at Finny, he’s looking at us… him can have the train.’
Noah sighs, ‘Yeah.’
Max and Noah are getting on with things. They have their own version of work. It is very intense. Today, the trees need petrol to keep going.
There is a pipe buried at the base of the tree. They place a piece of bark over its lovely mouth and stare at it.
‘Petrol in there.’
They squat, and stare at the piece of bark and the pipe, more thoughtfully.
Suddenly they rise up and go for the hose, drag it, grunting, panting. It is too long; it’s heavy and it knots its stomach and argues with their small feet. But they yank and wrestle it into place, refusing to give up.
Then they place the nozzle into the pipe and it fits. It is not a tree. It is a train.
And the water cooperates, a beautiful cold flood that darkens the ground and makes them briefly examine their feet. They check the bower, check the nozzle, check the fuel, crouch and stare, absorbed in the small heaving fountain. Noah taps the tree on its spindly shin. He says, ‘Done.’
Max agrees, ‘Turn off.’ But they can’t. The work is too important. They can’t leave it, the tap is too far away. They remain with the train, stroking its hot roaring flank, loyal and possessive…
Matchbox cars are always good. These are old, some sand from a sandpit in the seventies fell out all over the carpet. Digger, trucks, tractors, trailer, the trailer with a sharp edge.
Pa says, watch that trailer, it has a sharp edge. But Max has already assessed the trailer rubbed his thumb across the razy edge of its spine, noted it with interest.
Should file that off! (But doesn’t.) As it’s not been done for three generations.
Max adds noise to the vehicles, amazing that he knows so much engine talk!
Pa dozes next to the car park, the toys were all his, then our kids, now the grandkids. Must be the same play in a different decade, on a chilly evening, Pa snoozing and Nan reading and the dinner not even ready yet.
There is a new customer here today, a child, a boy who has sat reading though three volumes of Minecraft while his mother is in plays and poetry. He eventually came to the counter and held up the books. He said that his brother reads them but really only looks at the pictures. He smiles at me, thinking of someone so little as to only look at the pictures.
He tells me that Minecraft is about Vikings and swords and armour and trading. You have to trade. He says that it’s history without you knowing. His face is lit with ideas and kindness, wanting to share, hoping I would get it. He said that reading the Minecraft books made him want to read Emily Rodda and Rowan.
He tells me there are stones and ropes and you have to help yourself, it’s about the old days and it’s clever. Some kids just play it. But you have to know that it’s history without saying it. I know about the history. Then you will get it. You can build with it, build things like Rome.
There is a family gathering at the end of summer. The oldest of this bowlful, the great grandparents, look benignly down across everyone. The youngest on the playground, the two year olds, look up in astonishment at everyone.
Noah and Max aim their cousinly flights through two things only. Matchbox cars and slices of bun. There is a tiny digger of monumental value. This is because it is a digger, a tiny yellow plastic digger that they both want. The digger. They can both say digger. This word, for Max and Noah, lives in the cave of their mouths, already there, a solid, tasteful item. Digger. And there is the added delicious conflict that there is only one toy and two of them. This conflict provides enough material to enrich the entire afternoon.
They zone from table to garden and back again. They have stolen a thousand pieces of doughnut and bun. Great Grandma encourages the thefts, she looks on with approval. They are able to carry an entire theft in one fist. Mashed in with the cakes are the digger, the bulldozer and the cement mixer. The cement mixer is full of doughnut.
They have found a patch of garden that contains loose dirt; wealth equal to gold, diamonds or cordial.
Here they sit serving their own version of refreshment by the fistfuls until suddenly they both stare at the digger. There is a lurch and a chase, but they are only two years old and the purpose of the conflict becomes lost in the joy of muscle, movement and a snail.
(Reminders of toilet, safety and manners flick at their ankles and are ignored, lost).
There is another chase that ends suddenly because nobody has the digger now, it is lost. They stand perplexed. Suddenly they forget the toy and there is yet another race, wobbly, wild and scribbling, but the nappies weigh heavily, ballast is out of balance and there is a fall. There is exhaustion and despair and then finally, tears. It is time to go home.
On the last day of the holiday to Port Vincent, the family is packing up and packing in and running for the deadline of vacate the property by eleven am etc. but the boys, who are not quite two, and a bit more than two, have found a garden bed that apparently wasn’t there before.
In it is an attractive collection of wet bark chips and curly wood shavings that were not there before. There is also, underneath, a bed of earth that was not there before. There is also a level lovely plank to stand on, lean on, climb on, balance over, fly from, that was not there before. From this lofty height they watch the packing up, watch the potty as it is carried past to be repacked and they watch it with narrowed eyes. They will defeat it. They will not use it.
There are parent warnings but these are always there. These are signals of caution, dull, predictable and vital to measure the importance of one’s existence. The existence of Max and Noah is paramount and so they are surrounded with concerns and reminders, cautions and nags, the watch and the overwatch, fuelled by love and by its necessity which is love.
Noah and Max climb and clamour and ignore the warnings, scale the heights and run onto the road outrageously, ignorant, unheeding of parent agony, not giving a shit for the correct rules. They do not even use the potty with precision.
One day they will be 17 and they will say for fuck’s sake and so will pierce safety with the correct rage and anger because one time long ago they were adored and told repeatedly to get off the fence.
Noah came to visit on a really hot day. But the heat does not cause a toddler to slow his breathing or his intentions. The heat does not exist when there is a task to do. In my shop there is a vacuum cleaner and it is outrageously sitting idle. Noah knows what to do with idleness and he immediately puts the pieces together, provides the engine with his own heart and the voice of the machine with his own throat and he vacuums furiously here and there and all round his feet and all around his world.
He rebuked me soundly when I shortened the pole for his own shortness because he is not short and because this was wrong. He does not need ill-informed assistance from me; what he needs is the floor of my bookshop, a machine and an opportunity. And then, while he laboured across the small estate of my bookshop his small face was both alive with intention and lit with approval.
Thursday is too hot to open the shop. I stay home and Max comes to visit and although the heat floats around the house in soft, ticking waves he is unconcerned, he enters the drift delighted and he will find the tap, the hose, the sand, the stones, the buckets, regardless of advice. And so we sit out in it, enfolded and silent and the garden is falling, losing its height under the staggering weight of heat. Even the galahs, normally rummaging through noise and conflict, sit in lax groups, speechless, their black eyes stare down at us in amazement.
Max has made a pond with a peg and three shells and cold water. The hose, which was a melting length of green confectionary is now cooled. The tap, its head and mouth tipped with boiling metal is now tranquil. The bricks leading to the sandpit, slabs of unconcerned strength, are now watered and calm. Max has a tiny horse, a tractor and half a tennis ball and he works on in the shadows, mixing water with his treasure, adding cold cakes of wet sand, squatting beneath the shimmering surface of the morning, blending bliss with heat and altering my definition of the day.